Karl Lagerfeld marks two decades of fashion history at Chanel. His motto after all this time has stayed the same — never look back.
By Miles Socha
PARIS — Nothing pleases Karl Lagerfeld so much as a blank slate.
That’s how he approaches his work, his life and explains his reluctance — bordering on revulsion — for marking such banalities as anniversaries, even ones like his 20th year at Chanel. The designer continues to gleefully measure his life in six-month installments: the time to make a new collection and forget the one he just did.
“My favorite collection is my next collection. I always have the feeling it’s the first one in a way,” he said in an interview at Chanel’s legendary Rue Cambon couture salons. “It’s not what you did in the past in fashion that’s important, it’s what your contribution is to fashion of the moment. That’s what’s interesting in this job. Young designers today, after five years, they want a retrospective. Chanel, Balenciaga, Vionnet, Poiret, they never had a fashion retrospective in their lifetime. All this is a recent invention.
“I never look back, especially at my own past….I’m not at all into my own past. I have the feeling I’m here forever and for 10 minutes.”
And perhaps no one in the entire fashion world can pack as much wit, wicked humor and food for thought into 10 minutes than fast-talking Lagerfeld, the premier multitasking fashion genius and one of the most cultured men in the business. As outspoken as ever, he agreed to sit down for a WWD interview on the occasion of his anniversary, but expressed no desire to reminisce. No anecdotes. No career highlights. No favorite collections.
“I forgot it all,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I bleach my past. I only remember vaguely what was pleasant. What’s important is now, whatever it was we achieved.”
Lagerfeld is as discreet as the Wertheimer family, who owns Chanel, when it comes to discussing a blockbuster achievement: rejuvenating the house and turning it into one of the most admired and successful luxury brands in the world. Chanel never discloses financial information, but its fashions and fragrances are believed to generate north of $2 billion in sales.
It’s come a long way since 1981, when media-shy Alain Wertheimer first approached Lagerfeld about joining Chanel, then a house in disarray and decline. It was a time when fashion makeovers of dusty brands weren’t the regular occurrences they are today. Long before Tom Ford revved up and sexed up Gucci, and John Galliano overhauled and electrified Christian Dior, Lagerfeld began channeling the rich legacy of Gabrielle Chanel to generate new buzz.
“When I started at Chanel, everyone said, ‘Don’t do it. It won’t work.’ Nobody believed in it except me and Mr. Wertheimer,” he recalled. “That it would work so well I didn’t know. For me, it was a kind of miracle.”
By the time the story broke, in September 1982, that Chanel had tapped Lagerfeld to design its couture line (ready-to-wear was still under Hervé Léger, Lagerfeld’s student), he was more than happy to branch out from Chloé. “They have been damaging my reputation for years by making a horrible couture line,” he said at the time. And he found designing for such a vaunted fashion name as Chanel a challenge. “Someone had to design the collection. Why not me?” he asked at the time. “There is not one surviving fashion house which still retains the image of the original designer — unless that designer is still alive.”
In the days leading up to Lagerfeld’s inaugural couture collection, as the German designer slowly impressed his vision on the house, WWD described a “palpable ‘them against us’ friction between the Chanel regulars and the Lagerfeld camp.” The first thing he did for his initial show was banish Coco’s love of different skirt lengths, opting for a longer hemline that hit the top of the shin. He also reined in the color palette to simple navy, black, white and red.
But while Lagerfeld now seems to pull off A+ Chanel collections season after season, his beginning wasn’t so smooth. WWD’s review, titled “Lagerfeld Sputters,” was blunt: “No one can replace Coco Chanel — not even Kaiser Karl — nor should anyone — not even KK — make the attempt.”
Later, the review noted that “KK committed too many Chanel DON’Ts and not enough DOs,” including “pockets on the hip, a part of the body Coco respected and KK doesn’t.”
By the time he pulled together the next season’s couture and spring 1984 collections, he had gotten the hang of things. Throughout the Eighties, Lagerfeld tweaked his vision of Chanel, keeping the interlocking C logos and adding chunky chains and dashing hats while streamlining the signature wool suits and raising hems to the knee — notoriously one of Coco’s least-favorite body parts. Now, the ideas spewing forth in his Chanel collections seem as seamless as Lagerfeld’s conversation, from chic to sportif.
Today, Lagerfeld designs up to 12 Chanel collections a year, counting two couture collections, two rtw collections for the runway and multiple precollections. Last December, he even decided to add a “satellite” collection of luxury rtw for fall and mounted a small runway show at Rue Cambon.
Such a breakneck pace suits him perfectly.
“I think fashion is a nonstop dialogue,” he said. “And I’m still designing everything myself because if it’s not me, I’m not interested. It’s very funny. I’m only interested in what I’m doing, good or bad. I only like to fit dresses from my own sketches. I’m only interested in my vision, I hope the vision stays right and okay. I’m not at all a stylist who looks at a team’s work and then picks out the things. That bores me to death.
“I like to sketch, I like to fit and I like to organize shows, and then on to the next one,” he continued. “Very often I have the idea for the next show the day of the show. I think it’s a very healthy attitude. Anyway, it works for me.”
Lagerfeld said he never critiques his own work, and never looks back at what he’s done — even if just to check he has not repeated himself.
“That’s dangerous,” he said. “There’s nothing in my past I want to redo. The minute you start admiring the past, you make the present secondhand. If you think it was better before, you might as well stop.
“I’m never pleased with myself anyway. I’m happy and pleased when other people like a collection,” he said, hastening to add, however, that “the range of people whose opinion I care about is very limited.”
While there are few truisims in fashion, successful houses inevitably shelter a dynamic duo: a brilliant designer and a business person who work in tandem. Such is the case at Chanel.
Lagerfeld said Wertheimer’s attitude and approach toward the business is unique and founded on mutual trust between him, Lagerfeld and his chief deputy: Chanel president and chief executive officer Francoise Montenay. “He trusts people. He trusts Mrs. Montenay, he trusts me,” he said. “I know exactly what he expects and what he wants me to do and I do it. He doesn’t interfere. Here, my advice is followed 150 to 200 percent.”
Lagerfeld said his employment contract with Chanel —said to be indefinite and for millions of dollars a year — fits on one piece of paper. “It’s all based on confidence and consideration,” he said. “It’s very normal, very relaxed. You have the feeling you can trust people. Apparently, in other houses the atmosphere is not so positive. I don’t know, but I hear it can be really difficult, harsh and unpleasant. I want things to be smooth for everybody, me included. If there’s one achievement I’m proud of, it’s really that.”
Lagerfeld said he’s always conscious that he’s involved in a major business. And while he finds the commercial fascinating, he focuses on Chanel’s couture and rtw.
“I’m here for the fashion. The whole perfume business, I’m not interested. It’s a good thing. I never interfere in other people’s jobs, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to interfere in mine. For this, I’m quite merciless. Not that I don’t listen,” he said. “I don’t talk that much about what I do. I just do it. I talk to Mrs. Montenay in the studio over two Coca-Cola Lights during fittings. Business meetings is something I’ve never done in my life. I’m a studio person and I don’t want to be anything else. Nobody talks to me about the bottom line. It’s not my subject. My subject is body line. I think it’s more fun.”
Indeed, Lagerfeld said the fashion industry’s troubles today stem from overexpansion and the endless pursuit of growth for growth’s sake. “Everything gets too big and explodes,” he said. “Chanel never based its future on growth it wasn’t sure it could have. This is the genius of Mr. Wertheimer. He stays in a certain kind of limit. He’s not adding 300 different things and making stupid projections. No, no, no. This is a good thing. You stay within your borders, try to get a little more territory, but you need to be careful. After all, the world for this kind of thing is not that big.”
To be sure, Lagerfeld has taken Chanel in many new directions over two decades. He did flowing A-line dresses, and no suits, for spring 1998 couture; tweed jackets over leggings and catsuits for fall 1993 rtw, and taffeta ballgowns with motorcycle boots in 1994. For last October’s rtw, he had surfboards, kites and scubawear. Yet he insists it’s all in harmony with the legacy of Gabrielle Chanel herself.
“Chanel is not a fantasy. Chanel was about modernity and daily life,” he said. “She started with sportswear. Of course it was the sportswear of her youth, but times have changed. If Chanel makes sportswear today, it has to be in the mood, the materials and for the sports people today. Fashion is for what people do now and not what they did in the past. I never use flea market Chanels. The flea market — I leave that for other designers. I could give you names, but you don’t need them because I think you know them.”
Lagerfeld detests fashion revivals almost as much as anniversaries. He held out hope that the retro madness that has engulfed fashion for many years might finally wane, if only because everything seems to have been reprised up to 1999.
“I think there’s a new mood for this millennium. In a way, you see it more in furniture at the moment,” he said, citing, for example, what he’s seen in shops in Paris’s emerging contemporary art district, Louise Weiss. Asked to describe the direction further, Lagerfeld demurs: “My job is not to put it into words, my job is slowly to put it into collections and the clothes,” he said. “I work a lot by instinct and I try to put it into design, not into words.
“Everything influences fashion and that’s what makes fashion interesting. What I hate most are designers who try to give an intellectual turn to what they do — and then it’s a flea market rip-off. To me that is the most dishonest thing you can do. I hate this fake-intellectual, not-very-cultured dialogue of the fashion world….People who buy dresses don’t want lessons. They want something to wear.”
“Some people think the job alone isn’t good enough; there has to be the approval of the art world, whatever that means,” Lagerfeld continued. “It became a little pretentious in a way. We are dressmakers, that’s all. We have to dress in the spirit of the moment. Chanel was all about that. She was very humble about this. She said, ‘I’m a dressmaker.’ There’s nothing bad about that. If you think you’re too good to be a dressmaker, do something else.”
The first thing many designers do once they finish a collection is board a plane for Bali or the Caribbean to recover. Not Lagerfeld. He turns his attention to the next collection, not the next pleasure, party or holiday. He had his fill of that as a young man. “I saw it all so I’m free for work now,” he said. “For me, it’s good because it goes with my approach, my character, my way of seeing things and my way of doing things. I spent enough time in the sun. The last thing I need is to go back there.
“I’m very relaxed, but I always need to do things. That’s very deep in my nature. I’m working class.”
For that reason, Lagerfeld said he never thinks about retiring. “It’s difficult to imagine not doing it,” he said. “Maybe one morning I’ll wake up and be bored. But I like [the job] even more now than when I was younger.”
In addition to Chanel, Lagerfeld designs rtw for Fendi and his own Lagerfeld Gallery collection. Switching gears is not a problem.
“The minute I leave the house of Chanel I forget everything. Lagerfeld Gallery, it’s a reflection of my good — or bad — personal taste. If I were a woman, which I never wanted to be, I’m afraid I would dress that way,” he said laughing. “Fendi, it’s my idea of somebody from the north, what he would do if he were in Rome. I always have a more distant view. I’m always the outsider. That’s what I like.
“For me, the job is the same. I’m not obsessed with having my name on the door. I like things to be decent, to be good. Whatever the name is on it, people know it’s me. I’m not that discreet.”
Beyond collections, Lagerfeld is extremely active doing fashion and celebrity photography for many magazines, including Numero and Interview. What’s more, his 7L publishing house, founded in 1999, is going full steam. Projects in the works for 2003 include a boxed set of Fran Liebovitz writings and books about the hairstylist Odile Gilbert and the choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy. Also, with German art publisher Steidl, Lagerfeld is working on a book about the little-known furniture designer Eyne de Lanux and another entitled “Gambling Balance,” based on a conversation between himself and Interview editor in chief Ingrid Sischy.
“For me, everything I do is all connected, and one thing inspires the other. I don’t even consider the idea I’m spreading myself too thin,” Lagerfeld said. “I don’t do this job to get a social position. I do it because I like the job. Thank God I’m at ease wherever I go, but I am not a jet-setter. I only see people I like and who like me. I don’t see myself at all as social. I’m part of my studio….I’m not shy. I like to be with people and I like to be alone.”
The truth is, Lagerfeld is probably more in the public eye today than ever. His dramatic weight loss, more than 90 pounds in 13 months, is documented in a best-selling diet book, and his new confidence is plain in his impossibly tight Dior Homme suits by his friend Hedi Slimane.
“I wasn’t interested in myself and suddenly it was fun to get interested in clothes again,” he said. “It’s unimportant, I know, but it’s fun. It’s a game.”
Lagerfeld’s white ponytail and dark glasses are still shorthand worldwide for a famous fashion designer. But what happened to the fan?
Lagerfeld said he no longer carries one because few people smoke these days and he had used it to fan away offending wisps. He also doesn’t have to cover a double chin, or other ills.
“I haven’t had to hide from bad photos,” he said. “Skinnier — you can’t be because there is no smaller size. I have no bad angles anymore. I’m back to my bones, like when I was 20.
“I don’t have to be on display 24 hours,” he said, then added with a laugh, “even though I’m not that bad on display.”